When did we first begin to lose trust in the media? Was it when rags like The National Enquirer started running stories about finding Jesus’ death shroud, or when newspapers started including celebrity breakups in their arts and entertainment sections?
Over the past 30 or so years, the public’s trust in journalism has declined rapidly. I find this troubling, especially because the main function of the media has, in the past, been to act as a people’s watchdog of governments and institutions. Gone are the backslapping times of Watergate, when Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein blew open the scandal, forcing Nixon to resign. Investigative journalism no longer connotes imagery of trench coat-laden men meeting in a dark parkade. Now, it means dirty paparazzi digging through garbage cans and reporters harassing grief-stricken rape victims.
When did journalism become a dirty word? Reporters were once highly respected, considered heroes for finding the dirty bits of governments and dismantling them with words. With novels like 1984, where the media serves as propaganda, and the advent of reality TV, the media’s reputation has shifted into something deceitful and dishonest. The problem, as I see it, can be broken down into a problem of bias and lack of ethical restraint.
When we are fed information on the war in the Middle East, or even the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in ’99, we are only receiving one side of the story, and that side is often censored. When large corporations back publishing houses, a story that reflects badly on that corporation is likely not going to make it to print. Likewise, the concentration of media ownership means that there are few individuals and organizations owning large shares of media outlets, resulting in a trickling down of biases. A conservative corporation is likely to impose their conservative viewpoints on the newspapers and magazines that are run under their ownership. This is problematic.
How have we strayed so far from the days of Woodward and Bernstein? The modern individual wants flash and tidbits of information that he can digest during a 15-minute lunch break. The sensationalistic approach to people’s public lives are a result of the demands of the public: people would rather read about the lives of celebrities than about the breakdown of foreign governments. This is a generalization, of course, but it is a cause for alarm when sensationalism goes beyond celebrity gossip and makes its way into mainstream media. It becomes a problem when we begin to believe that the private lives of individuals should be made public. There is a difference between exposing the wrongdoings of the institutions that govern us and the exploitation of victims of war.
If mainstream media is riddled with bias and reporters toe the line of ethics on a regular basis, then our job as readers and viewers is to be highly discerning. This requires constant corroboration with multiple sources in order to find any kernel of truth in what we are given by the media.
We’ve gone from trusting journalists to provide us with inside information on corrupt governments, to considering them worse than the government officials who conceal scandals. I think there’s a problem here, and I long for the responsible reporting days of yore.